Blessing Ngobeni: Made Of Strong Stuff

WORDS Sarah Buitendach

Artist Blessing Ngobeni’s new work takes on a practical but potent form.

Artists delving into the realm of chairs, lights, even coffee tables, aren’t a new thing. The world of art and design and the way we live have always blurred. There are practical (and sexy) examples, like surrealist god Salvador Dalí’s famous Mae West Lips Sofa, which can be lounged upon. And there are less usable but very impactful pieces, like 20 Chairs From The Qing Dynasty by Chinese political artist Ai Weiwei, which strings together Qing stools in a virus-like ball.

Now, one of South Africa’s brightest stars is trying his hand at “functional art” too. You can very much use the art couch that award-winning painter Blessing Ngobeni has made – but he hopes that whoever buys it and ends up sitting on it does so circumspectly. “It’s a masterpiece, people must look after it!” he says with a laugh.

Blessing Ngobeni: Made Of Strong Stuff

He’s covered the piece of furniture with his instantly recognisable, multilayered, graffiti-esque images. They’re a crazy and colourful juxtaposition to the deeply classical and measured shape of the Regency-style sofa. The piece was, Blessing explains, chosen for a very specific reason and message. While doing research, he came across stories of the hair of American slaves being used to stuff the chair upholstery and mattress batting used by their white owners. The harrowing accounts got him wondering how many of the vintage things we own contain the DNA and spirit of slaves. The notion also triggered thoughts of child labour and broader exploitation.

Choosing to comment on this practice by using a type of old-world couch that is so specific to the West and former colonial countries makes a powerful statement – and one that’s been well received. People coming into Everard Read’s Joburg gallery, where it’s on display, are fascinated by the message and medium (and yes, keen to sit on the work).

While Blessing says he’s more interested in an idea than in the way it manifests, at FNB Art Joburg, which took place from 2 to 4 September, he expanded on the couch’s theme. For the Everard Read booth dedicated to his work, he and its curator Nkuli Nhleko created an immersive space that include a love seat, a foot stool and an occasional chair, all made from specially printed fabric that was based on a related series of his artworks. “To mirror the layered, dynamic style of Blessing’s work – which often includes paint, gold leaf and even charcoal – the fabric was embellished with embroidery, gold thread, beads, fringes and the like,” says Nkuli. “The installation highlighted a deeply disturbing yet touching history – but was also an homage to those enslaved people.”

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